Firstly, I must apologise for the disparaging comments made about urban pumas in my last article. I was mistaken in believing that my primeval aversion to large predators was shared by my conservationist colleagues; many of whom have expressed a desire to see the return of long persecuted wolves and big cats to our landscapes. An exasperated shark expert recently explained to me that our fear of ferocious beasts is frequently unfounded. He went on to describe how, having taken the time to learn the niceties of shark body language, he was able to swim alongside them unscathed. Perhaps this is not so surprising if one considers that millions of people are happy to share their homes with large dogs – animals which are often aggressive and physically quite capable of killing a human. So, maybe wild animals and humans can get along after all.
This is very reassuring stuff, especially when considering that predators are making their way back into Western Europe. This movement has been made possible by declining levels of hunting, trapping and poisoning. European bear and wolf populations are on the rise. The ecologist Frans Vera recently prophesised, most probably with a wry grin, ‘the wolves will come, whether we like it or not.’ He happens to be very happy about this, which is to be expected, as he is at the head of Europe’s biggest rewilding experiment.
For those of you who don’t know, ‘rewilding’ is the latest concept being bandied around by ecologists. For a long time the idea remained at the margins of conservation biology, claiming a mere handful of disciples. However, the imaginative practices of this small group of eccentric ecologists have seized academic and media attention. Their projects have offered hope to conservationists who, up until now, have been fighting a losing battle to build walls around the last strongholds of ‘pristine’ nature. The rewilding recipe is simple: choose your baseline, grab a parcel of uninhabited land – easy in a place like Russia or the US where the military is fond of setting out mysterious no go zones, ship in a load of the biggest mammals you can get hold of, sit back and watch. A baseline is just a point in space and time from which scientists gather ecological information so that they can work out what sort of plant and animal communities lived in the place. Favourite baselines are the late Pleistocene and early Holocene: periods which predate both the birth of agriculture and the extinction of most of the world’s megafauna. Rewilding aims to restore ecosystem functions such as fire regimes and predator regulation that been disrupted by human activities, in order to recreate pre human nature. The landscapes which have emerged in the rewilding zones are not necessarily replicates of past ecosystems, thus far the results have been unpredictable but exciting nonetheless. The ecological surprises include the formation of a temperate savannah in the Netherlands equipped with vultures and rare white tailed eagles.
These little Isla Nublars brimming with prehistoric beasts are popping up all over the world. But behind the laboratory walls more ambitious plans are being devised; plans to move rewilding projects beyond their enclosures, and out into the countryside. The writer and environmentalist Caroline Fraser explains, “Rewilding is about making connections. Forging literal connections through corridors. Creating linkages across landscapes and responsible economic relationships between protected areas and people.” So these wild zones are to be linked up, and their beastly populace is to be set free.
Sergey Zimov is the chief scientist of Pleistocene Park in the Republic of Yacutia, northern Siberia. His aim is to recreate the mammoth steppe – tundra grassland that covered huge expanses of Asia during the last ice age. Unfortunately for Zimov, the grazing animal which engineered this ecosystem is the woolly mammoth, which was hunted to extinction about four thousand years ago. His hopes are pinned on Korean scientists who have been working on a project to clone the mammoth over the past few months. They are extracting DNA from remains of those unfortunate creatures which were trapped in bogs and tar sands and subsequently mummified. Until then Zimov simulates mammoth grazing with his musk oxen, bison, Yakutian horses, reindeer, and his tank. Whilst he waits for the mammoth resurrection Zimov keeps himself busy by pulverising mammoth fodder, shrubs and small trees, in the old soviet war machine.
The Pleistocene Park is 160 square kilometers, just a fraction of the size of the original mammoth steppe, but it could be about to grow. Zimov’s research suggests that tundra grazers could stem the thawing of the permafrost in a warming climate. These frozen soils store 2.5 times as much carbon as all of the world’s rainforests, if they melt we would have all sorts of problems. The findings may provide the political impetus to reintroduce large grazers and their top predator, the Siberian tiger, across the northern hemisphere’s frozen roof.
Not to be outdone by the Russians Josh Donlan, an American scientist, is hatching rewilding plans of his own in the Midwest. This region has undergone an economic depression and monocultures have pushed out many of the family farmers who used to work the Great Plains. The innovative ecologist Donlan is proposing a novel stimulus package to rid the rural backwaters of their doldrums: an all American ice age safari park. Before the megafauna extinction some 13 000 years ago, North America was home to lions, camels, elephants, cheetahs and wild horses. The bison of the plains would have been dwarfed by the American elephant which stood three meters tall. Luckily we still have the chance to reverse our bloody prehistoric mistakes as relatives of the American megafauna still cling to existence in Africa,. Donlan urges us to recreate the great vicariance event of 200 million years ago when the Atlantic split the African cheetahs and lions from their American cousins by releasing African megafauna into the U.S. and letting them evolve in an American setting. Not only is there space for these huge beasts in the Great Plains, but there is also strong public interest in them. America is in love with big mammals. 1.5 million Americans visit the elephants of San Diego Wild Animal Park every year and there are more tigers kept in backyards in the U.S. than there are left in the wild. Donlan is rallying the nationalist spirit behind the project asking – why Americans should settle for a future landscape of rats and dandelions when it could be filled with the most magnificent creatures on earth?
It is not only the cold war superpowers that have jumped on the rewilding bandwagon. The ecologist Frans Vera of the Netherlands is busy creating a ‘Serengeti behind the dykes’ in the Oostvaardsplassen, a reclaimed polder just north of Amsterdam. His mammals of choice are Heck cattle. These creatures were back-bred from rare breed cows by Nazi scientists attempting to recreate the Aurochs, an enormous wild cow which once roamed free in Europe’s long felled forests. At the moment the Oostvaardsplassen is surrounded by a fence, but it might not always be so. Vera hopes that it can be connected up to the landscape corridors proposed by Rewilding Europe which will facilitate the movement of lynx, wolves, bears and wisents across the continent. He foresees a day in which herds of elephants will make their way around the Mediterranean and into Europe to graze in our woods and fields.
Small, isolated rewilding projects are proliferating all over Europe, Asia and North America. However the visions of their founders are still far from material, efforts to stretch them through large areas have come up against obstacles. The Dutch government has recently halted its National Ecological Network programme, selling back the land which was to be rewilded into landscape corridors. Elsewhere, in an astounding display of predator phobia the Northern League, Berlesconi’s coalition allies, were found to be holding a bear-meat banquet at a political rally in the Dolomites. One official declared that the banquet has had been prepared to ‘send a clear message to citizens who have the right to reconquer their territory and freely circulate’, adding that to protect themselves from bears, ‘we prefer to eat them like this’. It seems that few have yet joined the enlightened ranks of my conservationist readers, fear of wild animals is still very much with us. If the message of the bear feast is to be heeded then it would appear that the free movement of people and the free movement of large wild animals are incompatible. Man and animal are yet to be reconciled and Isiah’s prophecy lies unfulfilled. The search for a successful model for human – animal coexistence must go on.
The wolf shall lie down with the sheep,
And the leopard lie down with the kid,
The calf and the lion shall grow up together,
And a little child shall lead them.